Friday, November 30, 2012

Faith, storytelling, and mythology for the family: Rise of the Guardians and Life of Pi

Rise of the Guardians and Life of Pi seem mostly connected by happenstance - they came out the same day, both have a PG rating, both are being released in 3D (and, having been built for it from the ground up, look pretty good that way). What's surprising, though, is that they are similar in other ways.

Both, for example, key on belief and faith. The characters in Pi talk about God a lot, with Pi embracing Hindu, Christian, and Muslim belief systems as ways to connect with something larger than human understanding. The Guardians never call themselves gods, but the introduction of Jack is kind of heady - his narration talks of awakening without memories, but it doesn't play like amnesia so much as knowing he's an elemental force of some sort. The story goes back on this, giving Jack a backstory, but it's good enough to let stand. At any rate, each presents the divine as unknowable; even the Guardians know there's something more powerful out there, a Man in the Moon who only communicates obliquely.

For all that both talk about higher powers, though, both are arguably pretty rationalist in certain ways. The Guardians, for instance, are only powerful and able to interact wtih the world to the extent that they are believed in. Similarly, Pi's father points him toward science as the way to understand the world, showing that nature (as personified by the tiger) does play by human rules - the humanity and intelligence one sees there is a reflection of one's self.

You can get into fights over that stuff if you're so inclined - I doubt Life of Pi novelist Yann Martel would be particularly fond of my atheist's interpretation that Pi only sees the hand of God in his survival because he's got a tendency to see it everywhere - after all, what about all the other people he didn't help? If the chances of survival are one in a thousand, is it so odd that someone survived? Pi looks at his story and, man of faith that he is, says "God put me in this situation as opposed to admitting that while his individual survival was unlikely, it's not unbelievable that someone would survive.

What's really kind of interesting, though, is that both movies teach about storytelling. For Pi, it's obvious; at the end, we're given an alternate version of the story that parallels the one we've been hearing, and the audience is given the chance to choose which version is "real". The answer chosen within the film is not necessarily the more believable one, but the one that makes a better story, even if they are roughly equivalent. Meanwhile, Guardians is talking about character "centers", and while it's a "know thyself" sort of discussion, the way Santa demonstrates it with the nesting dolls both calls back how he knows he's an idea along with a person, and he's built up around that idea. You can probably spend some time talking about it that way with a clever kid, how this Santa was built up from that basic idea, which must be present, no matter what is added to it.

Rise of the Guardians

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 November 2012 in Regal Fenway #1 (first-run, Real-D)

When writing about something like Rise of the Guardians, I sort of wish I lived close enough to my brothers that I could borrow a niece to come with me and tell me what she thinks afterwards. There's a contradiction at the heart of this movie - it builds a complex mythology around the likes of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, and I wonder if it's too much to grasp for those young enough to really buy into it. The ambition is admirable and often impressively realized, but who does it fully work for?

The basic story is graspable enough: Pitch Black (voice of Jude Law), the Bogeyman, has learned how to hijack the pleasant dreams sent by the Sandman, which leads Sandy and the other Guardians of Childhood - Santa Claus (voice of Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (voice of Hugh Jackman), and the Tooth Fairy (voice of Isla Fisher) to meet at the North Pole, where the Man in the Moon informs them that their group will need a new member to counter this threat: Jack Frost (voice of Chris Pine). Of course, Jack's not interested in that sort of responsibility, and most of the other Guardians are none to fond of him anyway.

Give the folks at DreamWorks (and original Guardians of Childhood author William Joyce) their due: There are a lot of variants on the "legends and folklore characters are real") angle floating around right now, but this is certainly one of the most eye-catching. Santa's workshop, the Easter Bunny's warren, the Tooth Fairy's headquarters and Pitch's dark mirror thereof are all gorgeously, ornately designed, impressive combinations of polish and whimsy built from the ground up to look especially amazing in 3D. The influence of executive producer Guillermo del Toro is definitely felt with that loving attention to detail, and the character designs combine action-ready angularity with a comforting softness atop that muscle.

Full review at EFC.

Life of Pi

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 November 2012 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, Real-D)

It's hard to overstate just what a good-looking Ang Lee's Life of Pi is. It's not just that Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda shoot beautiful imagery, or that the special effects crew does remarkable work; the merging of the two is some of the most amazing ever done. Practically every frame perfectly balances the real, the fantastic, and the metaphorical about as well as is possible. It's so well-done that, by the end of the movie, one can almost take it for granted.

And that's dangerous, because the moment the viewer isn't thinking about how beautiful it is, he or she might start to find it a little dull. Lee and screenwriter David Magee wind up courting that a little, perhaps, with every cut-away to the present-day Pi which serves to remind the audience that it has been promised not just an adventure, but a story that will make you believe in God. That's setting the bar high, and these two talking makes the movie seem like it has to convince the audience of the story's impressive scale. And it's funny, maybe the movie would have still gone a little slack if it stuck with young Pi on the ocean, but that might have worked - being a castaway in that situation probably would have some boredom-interrupted-by-sudden-terror elements to it, and so it would have been easier to accept.

I'd be lying if I said the movie didn't stick with me afterward, though. Is it a story to make me believe in God? No - I actually think it kind of illustrates the folly of such a belief; Pi's survival is "miraculous" in isolation, but as a data point compared to the dozens who perished horribly, it's merely "unlikely". But, then again, the film has just reminded the audience that what one sees in an animal's eyes is often one's own reflection; might it not also be so for the world at large? A spiritual type like Pi will naturally see God, while the likes of me will see probability.

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